Hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail has its challenges, but there’s got to be a reason why more and more people are venturing out each year to tackle this multi-month thru-hike. To find a little clarity about the things you learn along the way, a 2016 PCT thru-hiker by the name of Hawkeye was happy to share 10 life lessons learned while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
It’s the Steps Between the Destinations that Define Your Journey
The beginning and end of the Pacific Crest Trail make for some of the best profile pics, but the real picture of what it’s like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail comes from the many days between the two destinations. Truth be told, the beginning and end of the trail aren’t the most memorable moments of the entire trip. It’s the sudden snowstorms, the unexpected trail magic, and the wide-variety of people who cross your path that have a bigger impact than the two monuments that capped the whole experience.
Plan Ahead and Prepare; Then Go With It When the Plan Falls Apart
Not until the last three miles of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail did any well-thought out plans go exactly as I had written out on paper. An extra day in town, fewer miles thanks to inclement weather, ambitious plans meeting the reality of what they are, you name it—any number of things can slow you down on trail. While the initial direction of north lays a good foundation and proper packing is essential for non-starvation, you can only plan and control so much on the Pacific Crest Trail. The rest you just have to make it up as you go along.
You Never Know What’s Really Ahead of You Until You Hike There
Inside the tent at night, it’s easy to keep yourself up worrying about what obstacles lie ahead on the trail; until the complete exhaustion of hiking for months on end kicks in and you fall asleep the moment your head hits the stuff-sack pillow. Stressing about how much the climb will hurt, whether the weather is going to stay on your side of the mountain, or the unknown dread at the pit of your stomach wondering if you can stand up to the overall challenge. The truth was, only a small number of worries ever came true, and most of the real struggle seemed to come without forewarning. While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the only way to see what obstacles you’re facing is by confronting them with every step forward.
A Little Company Can Take You A Long Way
Some of the most rewarding times hiking the Pacific Crest Trail were the solo-moments. Feeling yourself shrink as the sun drops on a hidden campsite, followed by the reassurance of life waking up to the new day’s light—it’s a necessary experience for any hiker. But that time alone comes with a sharp edge on its back, enhancing every struggle and every physical and mental danger you come across. Having a little company on trail didn’t just provide a safety net, it was often encouragement to go that extra-mile, and you wouldn’t believe the sort of satisfaction there is when you are sitting, soaking in the rain and you are able to turn to someone and say, “well, this sucks.”
Earning the Views Makes Everything Look That Much Better
There’s no lack of mountains to climb on the Pacific Crest Trail, almost frustratingly so at times, and there is always a point in each climb where a stray thought could find itself centering around “why am I doing this?” More times than not however, as you climb and climb and climb some more, waiting for you at the top is a stunning view of the world. While those views aren’t too shabby in the normal day’s light, once you have your blood flowing and feel weak in the knees, those views can take you off your feet and remind you exactly why you chose this life.
This Too Shall Pass
Ninja mosquitos making their way into your tent, softball-sized sprains that slow down your day—a lot of the things that are easy to complain about on trail often do pass with time. Agonizingly slow maybe, but every blister, abrasion, and feeling of self-doubt does heal up and become stronger skin. Remembering this, and remembering that the successful feelings of climbing to the top of a mountain pass, hitting 10 miles by 10:00 a.m. and the reassurance that you are exactly where you are supposed to be in your journey, those feelings too, they shall pass.
Mental Struggles Are Hard to Get Over, For Everything Else There is Aleve
Of course you can’t will yourself out of a broken leg, or positively imagine the snake venom coursing its way out of your veins, but more times than not, it’s the mental struggles won or lost that define your experience on the Pacific Crest Trail. There are immense lows, valleys that you must climb out of to accomplish your goals, and the highest of highs as your raise you arms on top of the world. Being mindful of what is really ailing you, as well keeping a healthy dose of Aleve or Ibuprofen at hand, is the key for making the long haul on the PCT.
Life Moves Faster with Less Things to Carry
It’s unbelievable the value you put on things once you start having to carry them all on your back. Suddenly things that were once considered essential get pitched into the luxury category, and it’s physically noticeable once you cut down all that weight. Living simply, carrying only the necessities—even the intangible items you leave at home while traveling the trail, such as constant social media plug-ins, 24-hour news channels and the all-knowing Google to answer all of your questions—makes you quite a bit faster in your pursuits.
Insurmountable Goals Can Be Reached One Step at a Time
While 2,650 miles might seem like a lot of distance to cover over rugged terrain, which it is, the only way it can be been done is one step at a time. While that should go without saying, it’s easy (and stressful) to picture the trail in its entirety. Instead, taking the large goal at hand and breaking it up to single cycles of the sun it a way to keep sane in an otherwise overwhelming hike across the country.
There Are 24 Hours in the Day, Use Them
Donating many 14+ hour days to cover the large distances needed to reach the Canadian border, suddenly the urgency to use each hour effectively becomes inherent. What becomes hard to balance however isn’t the hours used to hike, it’s the other parts of the day dedicated to rest and recovery. Using all 24 hours of the day doesn’t mean hiking all night, but instead raising awareness of how to use the hours in the day to optimize performance. Resting when relaxing was needed, taking care of the small chores that kept the journey afloat, and hitting the trail at full speed with a recharged enthusiasm.
Bonus: It’s All in How You Choose to Look at It
While it’s hard to say with any true authority, the entire trail is really a lesson in perspective. Whether it’s an appreciation for the running water back home, the realization that these forests and parks have been growing for centuries before you were ever born, or it’s just the understanding that rain is wet but it doesn’t have to ruin your day, hiking the PCT is a practice in mindfulness and that change in perspective will define the beauty along the way.
photos by Brad Lane